With each day delivering a fresh maelstrom of Twitter trash and nonsense posts, it’s been overwhelming and hard to focus on just one issue.
Some of the Twitter outbursts have kept me up at night. In fact, breaking out in cold sweat in the late evening or early morning hours seems to be the new norm in our Trump era: Speak out of turn, and you may well wake up to a PR crisis that’s been festering since 6 a.m. It’s about this time of the day that our soon-to-be president starts firing off a series of tweets ‑ a strategy that defined his unorthodox campaign and is starting to define his nascent presidency.
During the campaign, it was easy to laugh at the candidate’s tweets, the majority of which seemed petty, needlessly antagonistic and base. But it’s not so funny if you are a CEO failing to toe the Trump line, an even less funny if, in the wake of a single tweet, your company’s stock price falls by 8% in a matter of hours.
Each Tweet a PR Crisis in the Making
Just this month, pharma stocks lost $25 billion in market cap after the Donald accused them of “getting away with murder.” The peso hit record low against the dollar as he lashed out at American car-makers with plants in Mexico. Hollywood got a bashing when Meryl Streep spoke out at the gossamer-skinned executive during the Golden Globe awards. Mr. Trump’s Twitter storms are further complicated by his fudging of basic economic issues, his infantile missives, and his routine use of distortions and half-truths.
His corporate targets have included Boeing, Toyota, General Motors and Carrier ‑ all of whom weathered a PR crisis of varying degrees. To the extent there is a theme, he picks companies that run up against his sometimes-muddled campaign promises or, in the case of Boeing, for costs associated with a new aerospace program.
General Motors and the auto industry seem to be shaping a communications strategy that highlights their huge role in the creation of American jobs while reviewing plans for further investment in Mexico and elsewhere. To GM’s credit, the company was quick to point out the facts surrounding its production of the Cruze model — very few of which ever enter the U.S. market. But many other companies are just hoping (read: praying) to stay off Trump’s radar until his administration sorts out its priorities, including new trade arrangements and incentives (or penalties) for keeping or adding jobs in the U.S.
How Can Companies and Brands Respond?
Under normal circumstances in this country, a company is free to vigorously defend its business activities or to call a lie a lie. But what does your communications team do when the accuser is an American president and not some disgruntled employee or internet troll?
No doubt many corporations are scrambling to review and update their crisis communication plans, based on a perfectly rational fear of financial and reputational damage — or retribution in any form – from a Tweet storm. We know the basics of a crisis PR or communications program — anticipating the crisis, deploying streamlined rapid response procedures, clear and direct messaging, and so on. But something is disturbingly different this time, and it’s requiring companies of every size to rethink their approach to “crisis communications.”
A New Communications Strategy: Out-Twitting the Twits
From a crisis communications perspective, companies cannot afford to keep their brand profiles low and hope the whole Twitter phenomenon blows over. It simply won’t, not for the next four years anyway.
I’m not suggesting picking a fight with the new president.
But protecting a company’s reputation, brand equity and sustained business viability will require tough new approaches while this new, still-fuzzy political picture comes into better focus, and as new social media boundaries are established.
Bottom line, this new era in American politics is turning out to be a new era in a lot of other arenas as well. Public relations professionals, social media managers, corporate communications experts, reputation managers – all are being forced to redefine their thinking, strategies and messaging.
Quite frankly, they have no choice – given that the impetus for change is not a “what” but a “who” – with 20 million Twitter followers.
Just a few short months ago, candidate Trump claimed on the campaign trial that he had “the best words.”
Now the professionals and wordsmiths who specialize in communications must explore new ways of using “their best words” to their advantage – to tone down the sting of language so that the entire conversation can once again embrace accepted standards of civility. And to use those words effectively to ask their attacker(s) to either eat them, tone them down, clarify them or take them back.